Virtue & Mischief: The limits of technology


On Saturday afternoon I found myself chatting with a colleague about some of the wonders of current technology. This gentleman is about my age (as Luke puts it, “not quite old”) and possesses a similar level of knowledge about, and interest in, such matters as I.

In other words, he and I know enough to receive and send emails, access most of the websites we have an interest in accessing, and are able to order some goods online (though we sometimes grumble through the process—and take longer than we’d like—because it entails recalling a username and/or password that ABSOLUTELY MUST be one letter or digit or symbol different than all our other usernames/passwords due to the secure website’s idiosyncratic demands).

I’ve found the explosion in technological advances and its impact on daily life something of a two-edged sword. On the one hand, I enjoy regularly reading a handful of websites each morning before I begin my commute to work, live streaming otherwise unavailable baseball games on my tablet, and keeping up-to-date with friends and family on Facebook and the like. On the other, I fear there is something approaching a technology-addiction epidemic in our country and that the art/skill of conversing with others, whether for sheer enjoyment or for the accurate and thorough exchange of information, is being decimated. Tease us if you like, but Krista and I don’t own smartphones—yet. True, texting on our flip phones is a major undertaking, but when we go out on a date there is no temptation to check a football score or the latest Drudge headlines during a lull in the conversation. (And spare me the predictable joshing: We DO have indoor plumbing and own a couple of horseless carriages).

In any event, my colleague shared with me how he’d spent an hour and a half on Skype the night before, visiting with a nephew who was studying overseas. “It was great to talk with him and, you know, just SEE him so I could feel certain he was doing okay,” he said. I nodded. “When you’re talking on the phone, you don’t get all those other cues—the facial expressions and whatnot—that convey so much information. You know what I mean?” he asked.

Indeed, I do. Our brief interaction nudged me 40 years (40 years!!) backward in time. My parents, my younger sister, and I lived in Scandinavia for the school year of 1976-77. I was a shy, scared, lonely 10th grader at the St. Paul’s Skole located on the rim of Lake Ulriken in downtown Bergen, Norway. I knew no one there. I didn’t speak the native tongue. St. Paul’s was a Catholic private school and I wasn’t Catholic and had always attended public schools. My friends were back in Indiana doing and enjoying the things high school kids in Indiana did and enjoyed in the mid-to-late 1970s: playing basketball, going to parties and dances, watching Charlie’s Angels and Happy Days, eating pizza. Jimmy Carter was running for (and became) President and Bruce Jenner had just won the Olympic gold medal in the decathlon.

When I returned home from school each day that year I engaged in a pitiful routine: I picked up from the kitchen table whatever novel I was reading at the time (I remember, in particular, reading “The Exorcist,” “Rich Man, Poor Man,” and an interesting reincarnation-themed thriller entitled “The Search for Joseph Tully”), stretched out on my bed, commenced reading, and listened for the squeaking sound of mailboxes being opened and shut. I was nearly desperate to receive letters from my friends in Indiana, and hungry for news—any news—from home. Who had been injured during a football game? Who had improved sufficiently in basketball to earn a starting spot on the Junior Varsity? Who was dating whom? What were the latest entertainment fads? It was via just such an airmail delivery that my very good friend, Jamie, for example, informed me that I had to check out the boxing movie “Rocky” when it arrived “over there,” that he was in love with some new actress named Farrah Fawcett, and that he’d tried beer for the first time. Often my mail would include newspaper clippings with stories and pictures from the Lafayette Journal & Courier—stories, say, of our school’s victory over a rival in basketball, with box scores and mentions of my closest buddies.

By day I went to school and gradually established some mild and limited friendships. Most evenings I spent doing homework, trying to learn Norwegian by poring over the local newspaper or watching TV, and writing letters to be sent back home. On weekends my sister and I might journey into town via bus to see a movie (happily, neither television shows nor movies were dubbed into Norwegian; they utilized subtitles instead. While most fare was American or British made, and therefore in English, there were the occasional German or French movies which tested and stretched our weak-but-improving skills in Norwegian since we had to read the Norwegian subtitles to understand what was going on) or our family took excursions to various locations of historical/family/cultural interest around the country.

How different would my experience have been if I’d had Skype or internet access then? I wouldn’t have written or received letters, probably. Neither my friends nor I would have stretched our descriptive skills to place in writing what we were seeing and experiencing in those days. I wouldn’t have read nearly as much, wouldn’t have thought as deeply, wouldn’t have experienced the thrill—seriously—of receiving hoped-for mail, listening to an Armed Forces Radio broadcast of an NCAA basketball tournament game at 2 a.m., or explaining in a different language to an interested audience the glories of the interstate highway system, chocolate chip cookies, and “American” football.

I’d have been far more comfortable, true, but even my discomfort had lasting benefits. I learned a measure of self-reliance and confidence in my ability to endure—if not overcome—uncertainty and anxiety. I learned to speak and write more clearly. I learned to listen more carefully. I learned to work a little harder. I learned that my younger sister was a really terrific person and a good friend.

And without even knowing it at the time, I learned I could get along just fine without Skype and Youtube and Facebook and Drudge if need be.

By Tim Swensen

Virtue and Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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